She watches the man. Every day. Watches him with a hunger she scarcely understands. It’s been ten years now and she should be getting on with her life. Everyone else is. 1950, five years since the end of the war and seven since her husband of only two years died on the battlefield. The Fifties are the decade when everything is getting better in Britain. People have more money, medical care is free, housing has improved, husbands and wives are reunited and raising children in a world of new optimism.
But she and Bill can’t be reunited. Bill is dead.
She watches the man.
Would they have married if there hadn’t been a war on? Yes, she thinks; probably they would—but not then; not so early. She had been nineteen and Bill only a year older. She was sure that she loved him and certain that he loved her, but he needed time—they both did—to save enough money. To start life in a home of your own was something no-one from either family had ever managed to do, but it was what they wanted.
Then Bill was called up into the army and they both knew what could happen to an infantryman. They should do—there were plenty of spinsters around, women in their fifties who had never known what it was to be wives and mothers because the men they might have married had died on the Somme, or the Marne, or at Cambrai. Bill preached caution but she didn’t want to end like that, all dried up and never been…well; kissed was the word she used, but she had been kissed, many times, and kissed wasn’t what she meant. The other thing, the intimate thing, she’d never had that because good girls didn’t. Not in those days. That didn’t mean she didn’t want to. With the right man, in the right way, at the right time.
Fate intervened in the shape of the death of her Aunt Marie. Marie was one of those unwilling spinsters, a young woman, good looking enough, whose fiancé had died on the 4th of November, 1918, just one week before the end of the war, at Ors on the Sambre-Oise Canal—the same day, the same place, the same skirmish as Wilfred Owen and although Owen became famous and was awarded a posthumous Military Cross, he was missed no more strongly than Marie missed her Tom. Doomed to a lifetime as a single woman, Marie got a job in a bank but had to leave it to care for her sick mother and then, after her mother’s death, her father. When he died she inherited the house and what little money he had and that allowed her to live peacefully, if without show.
Marie had learned a lesson from Tom’s death. Her will left the house to Sarah but with a condition: that Sarah and Bill marry immediately. If they did not, the house was to be sold and the money given to charity. Even Bill could see the sense of not looking that gift horse in the mouth and so they were married, quickly, in a register office. Her father had to give permission; she was under age.
She knew people had talked, of course she did, two young people getting married in such a rush: she must be pregnant, mustn’t she? It didn’t trouble her. She knew she was a virgin and that, the self-respect she had maintained, was what mattered.
A honeymoon would have been nice, but they decided against it. They had no car (and probably couldn’t have got petrol, even if they’d had one, for something so self-regarding as the consummation of a marriage). War had thrown public transport into chaos; even if you could get onto a train there was no knowing where or when it would set you down. There was no time to waste in sidings—Bill had to report to Park Hall in Shropshire in three days to begin his basic training. So, after the marriage and a celebratory tea at her parents’ house, they took the bus to their new home.
They looked at each other, two people alone together who didn’t really know what to do. ‘I’m going to take a bath,’ she said. ‘Then I’ll get into bed. Follow me when you’re ready.’ She felt embarrassed to be taking charge when Bill should really have been doing it, but someone had to make things happen.
Rationing was tight in wartime and there had been no clothing coupons to pay for the kind of nightdress a girl wants to wear on her marriage night, but her mother had kept the one she had worn twenty-two years earlier and Sarah had cut it down to fit her slighter figure. It was white cotton, buttoned from throat to waist and trimmed with lace. When she got into bed she felt nervous, a little frightened in fact, but however much it hurt she was determined that her new husband would make a woman of her tonight. She settled down to wait.
When Bill came upstairs it was clear that he was as nervous as she was. He came out of the bathroom in flannel pyjamas and she wondered for a moment whether he had dumped his wedding suit on the bathroom floor or hung it up neatly. He wasn’t going to have much use for a suit for the next year or two, but even so. He stood in the doorway. ‘Shall I turn out the light?’
‘No. Leave it on. Please.’ She wanted him to see her. Then. After he’d taken her nightie off. Or she had. And she wanted to see him. They’d waited long enough. She giggled, and Bill laughed, and the tension was broken. He came into bed with her, took her in his arms, kissed her, snuggled against her although the evening was warm. She was surprised to find herself rising almost above him in her eagerness to kiss and be kissed and she hoped he wouldn’t think she was being forward.
But what’s the point of being married if you can’t be forward with your husband?
Their lips were warm and soft on each other as Bill’s hands kneaded the soft cotton against her back. She felt him reaching for the hem. ‘There are buttons,’ she said. ‘On the front. At the top.’
‘So there are.’
She settled down to be undressed. It was lovely to feel the buttons popping, one after the other, until he was able to lay the two sides open and see her for the first time. She was proud of her breasts, which she thought were the best part of her, her number one asset and when Bill began to stroke them, and then to kiss them, she held his hands firmly on them, pushed them towards his mouth.
And then he was raising her nightdress and this time she didn’t stop him but sat up and helped him get it over her head and off and she put her hands on his shoulders and held him at arms’ length while he looked at her. That was love in his eyes, and something like delight, and whatever nervousness or fear she might have had about what was to happen to her, the penetration she was going to feel, vanished. She lay down. She smiled at him.
His hands slipped gently down and she parted her thighs as he reached the place where now all of her desires seemed to be congregating. Then he was stroking her, his hand sliding gently up and down and his finger probing, just the tip entering her and then more than the tip and then the whole finger and her hips were moving as though they had nothing to do with her and then she almost came bolt upright as another finger joined the first and then they were withdrawn as he hurried to get his pyjamas off, first the jacket and then the pants and he was over her and fumbling and she felt the tip of his thing that she had never given a name to even in her most private thoughts and it was trying to find its way but couldn’t and she reached down and took it in her hand and lifted her hips slightly as she guided it and, there, it was pushing into her, it was in her, all the way in and her fears had been about nothing because they were making love and it felt wonderful and it had hurt only a little and she wrapped her arms round him and she felt so good, so happy.
It was over too soon. That was the only disappointment. It was over too soon, and she felt so happy, yes she was happy, she was a woman now and she’d got there with the man she loved who was her lawfully wedded husband but she was not fulfilled, not quite. Probably it was because they were both beginners. Probably it would be better next time. Even better next time, she corrected herself.
She and Bill, naked as they were, wrapped around each other. Bill fell asleep. She did not, but not because she was unhappy. She was not unhappy. She had never been so contented. The light stayed on because she did not want to disturb Bill by getting up to turn it off. But then Bill disturbed himself when he woke up and padded off to the bathroom.
When he came back, she held out her arms and took him into them. They kissed. She whispered, ‘Can I hold you?’ but she didn’t wait for an answer, partly because she didn’t see why a married woman should have to ask permission, it should be her right, but mostly because she was embarrassed to be so presumptuous and she reached down gently, so gently, and took his penis into her hand.
It hung short and wrinkled but it very quickly began to uncoil and grow longer and harder. Bill said, ‘I’m sorry, Darling. Didn’t I satisfy you?’ and she dug him hard in the ribs with her spare hand and said, ‘Of course you satisfied me. It was lovely. That’s why I want another go. It’s all right, isn’t it? To have another go?’
He kissed her. ‘It’s wonderful to have another go.’
Once again she parted her thighs and guided him into her and this time there was no disappointment, this time it was not over too soon, this time as he moved backwards and forwards in her he went on long enough for her to be moving backwards and forwards too, in time with him, and a feeling built inside her, a feeling she had perhaps dreamed about in her imaginings of how it would be but never felt and now she wasn’t just moving with him, she was bucking on the bed, her hips thrusting up and then the feeling burst and it was on her and she cried out and hugged him to her as hard as she could and kissed him and then he had his climax, too, and he sank down onto her but taking his weight on his elbows. She said, ‘You’re magnificent,’ and she could feel how he filled with pride as he slipped out of her.
Now she was the one who had to go to the bathroom and when she came back she turned out the light and said, ‘I’ll let you sleep now, my hero,’ although really he was the one who’d slept before and she had lain awake thinking about the lovely thing that had happened to her and the lovely things that were going to go on happening to her in the future.
It was late when they woke and before they got up although she was sore from the night before, their first night, they did it again, slowly and sweetly, and as she dressed she thought, “We’re good at this and we’ll get even better” and she was glad that they’d waited, that there had been no shame and no hurried, furtive coupling where they couldn’t be seen.
When she made the bed she realised the bottom sheet would have to be washed and she wished someone, ideally her mother, had told her to put a towel under her before she made love for the first time but that was how it was: you didn’t talk about sex to anyone. Not even your own mother. She was lucky, really, that things had gone so smoothly. They must be naturals.
Because Bill was going to Park Hall and wouldn’t be back for twelve weeks, she had taken three days holiday from her job as a shorthand typist. Some of the time they spent walking and she invested some in learning how to cook for herself and her man, but when the three days were over she would say—to herself but not to Bill because there were still limits to the familiarity she could allow herself—that she had spent more time with her knickers off than with them on. She hadn’t counted how many times they had made love, but she knew it was no small number. She had enjoyed every one.
And then he was gone.
For twelve weeks she didn’t see him and hardly heard from him. There was no telephone in the house. His letters were censored and, anyway, he was not a great letter writer. She went to work each day and in the evenings she cooked simple meals for herself, listened to the Light Programme and the Home Service on the radio and thought about Bill. Of course, she could have spent those lonely evenings at her parents’ house but it did not occur to her to go there or to them to invite her. She was a married woman now.
At night, in bed, she dreamed about Bill. Bill raising her nightdress. Bill stroking her breasts. Bill getting stiff in her hands. Bill between her thighs. Sometimes the desire was so great she woke herself up and had to do what she had never done when she was single, just to calm herself enough to get back to sleep.
Then he came home. She had planned a special meal and it was indeed eaten, but later than intended because when she saw him everything else was driven from her mind and she took him by the hand and led him upstairs. As they passed through the bedroom door she was talking off her dress; when she looked round, he was also undressing. It would not afterwards be possible to say who had had whom.
After a week’s leave, he joined his regiment and was posted to France.
She was never to see him again.
The neighbours heard her screams. They had known Aunt Marie, they knew Sarah’s mother and one of them sent a son, a boy of twelve who grumbled all the way there, for help. Sarah’s father went to see the owner of the company Sarah worked for and told him what had happened. The owner gave Sarah a week off work. The week turned into two; the two turned into three.
Her mother did what she could.
‘You have to get dressed, Sarah. You can’t spend all day in a nightdress.’
She shook her head.
‘Well, at least put a new one on. That one smells. You haven’t been out of it for days. And for God’s sake take a bath.’
This time she didn’t even shake her head.
‘Come home for a while, dear. Let me look after you. Like I did when you were little and you weren’t very well.’
She wouldn’t. This was her home, hers and Bill’s. This was where the memories were. There’d never be any more, she knew that.
Her father put his foot down. ‘There’s a war on. Men are being killed. I know it’s sad but other men have died and the streets aren’t full of crying women.’
‘Perhaps they should be,’ said her mother. ‘Perhaps if enough women cried, all this killing would stop.’
He shook his head. ‘I want you back home. If she’ll come with you, fine. But if she won’t you’re to leave her on her own till she comes to her senses.’
She knew the two men by sight, though not their names. She didn’t know exactly what they did, either, though they worked for the same company she did. They had some reason, some deficiency, that prevented them from being called up, but what it was she didn’t know. What she did know when they knocked on her front door was that she didn’t want to see them, didn’t want sympathy, didn’t want any of those awful things people say when they’re trying to be kind. She ignored the knock.
One of the men must have stayed by the front door because the one who pushed open the back door was alone. That door must have been unlocked for days. She said, ‘What are you doing? What do you want?’
He didn’t answer—just took her by the wrist as he locked the door behind him and led her through the house. She shook her arm but his grip was too strong. ‘Get off me!’
‘Don’t be difficult. There’s no point screaming; no-one can hear you. They’re all at work.’
It wasn’t true, of course; a lot of women had taken jobs while their men were at war but not all of them. The woman next door, for example—she should be at home. But no-one came. The man opened the front door so that his colleague could come in. Now she had one holding her left arm and the other holding her right. They went upstairs like that, one pulling from the front; the other pushing from behind. They didn’t speak to her. When they got her into the bedroom they let go.
‘What do you want?’
‘We were so sad to hear about your husband. We realised you must be going without. We don’t want you to go without, Sarah.’
The other man sniggered.
‘I’d like you to go, please.’
‘We can do it the easy way,’ as though he hadn’t heard her. ‘Or we can do it the hard way. It’s up to you.’
She was shaking with fear. ‘Go away. Please.’
‘Take your nightie off.’
‘Take it off.’
When she made a break for the door they pulled her back easily. ‘So you choose the hard way,’ said the only man to have spoken so far. The other said, ‘Why make it difficult? What does another slice off a cut loaf matter? We’re going to have a nice time. You can have one, too.’ He held both her arms behind her and pulled her back so that she was pressed tight against him. ‘Or not, of course. It’s up to you.’ She struggled to stop herself from trembling, but without success. ‘Please,’ she whimpered. ‘Please. Don’t do this.’
The man in front of her took her nightdress by the hem and pulled it all the way up so that he could hook it over her head. ‘There,’ he said. ‘That wasn’t so difficult, was it?’ His hands were rough on her breasts.
‘No!’ But they were deaf to her pleas. The man behind twisted her, throwing her onto the bed face down and then flipping her onto her back. When he sat on her head, she thought she would suffocate and in her terror she was scarcely aware of the other man forcing her legs apart, kneeling between them, opening his trousers.
The relief when the weight came off her head was so great that they did not need to restrain her while the second man took his turn. She lay beneath him, her chest rising and falling as she gulped down great draughts of air, and let it happen. She had simply given up. She wished she was dead.
The two men pulled up their trousers. One said, ‘You want to change that nightie, darling. And take a bath. You stink, you know that?’
They were laughing as they let themselves out.
She could not have said how long she lay there after they had gone. There were sounds in the street, doors opening and closing, a dog barking, but Sarah knew nothing of any of that. She stared at the ceiling. She knew now the meaning of the word “violated”. That was what they had done. They had violated her, and her memories of Bill, and the knowledge of how sweet love could be. All gone, buried under a feeling of worthlessness.
At last she stirred. The nightie was still around her neck. She took it off. Moving without conscious thought, she carried it with her as she dragged around the house, not admitting to herself what she was looking for but knowing anyway.
She found it in the scullery, a hook in the ceiling from which, a century before, hams had hung. What would hang there now would be heavier. And uglier, she thought. She wanted a drink of water, but what would be the point of that? Now? At this point?
She stood on a chair beneath the hook, wrapped the nightie around her neck and then twisted it over the hook. She tested it to make sure it was secure. Then she kicked the chair from under her.
Very quickly, she wished that she had found another way to go. There was nothing clean about this death; she was choking and gasping for breath. And she still wanted a drink. She swung her foot, searching for the chair, but it was out of reach. Her hands could not break the nightdress’s hold. The pain was dreadful, but as the world turned black it began to fade.
The ambulance men took Sarah out of the house on a stretcher watched by her next door neighbour, a policeman and a few idle gawkers. The neighbour said, ‘I heard a crash. It was a terrible noise—I thought the ceiling must have come down. Well, it had, of course. Part of it.’
The policeman was writing in his little black notebook. Paper was scarce because of the war and he had been told to make his notebook last. “Write small,” the sergeant had said. “And only what you have to. Abbreviate. Leave things out if you can.” He said, ‘Did you suspect she wanted to kill herself?’
‘Her husband died a few weeks ago. In France.’
‘You think that was it?’
The neighbour looked at him with something approaching contempt. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think that was it. I think it was those two men.’
The policeman was all attention now. ‘Which two men?’
‘I heard a scream. She’s screamed before and I thought, leave her be. She’s had a terrible loss. Let her get through it as best she can. Half an hour later the door slammed and when I looked out there were two men walking away. They were laughing. Then I heard the crash and I thought I’d better take a look.’
‘How did you get in?’
‘I’ve still got the key I had when her aunt lived there. She died,’ she explained as she saw the policeman’s blank look. ‘Left the house to her niece. I should have given the key back but I never got round to it. Good job I didn’t, or God knows how long she’d have lain there.’
‘These two men. Did you recognise them?’
‘One of them. I know his wife. They live three streets away.’
Sarah was in hospital for a week and the neighbours moaned that she was taking up nurses’ time that someone else might have used. Someone more deserving. A victim of war.
‘She is a victim of war,’ said her mother.
The police had arrested the two men but Sarah said she wouldn’t give evidence and they were released without charge. Big fuss about nothing, the neighbours said. The wife of Sarah’s employer came to see her. ‘We’ve had to take them back. We’d have liked to fire them but it’s hard to find workers with all the fit men away at the war.’
‘Or dead,’ Sarah said.
It’s easier to find women who need a job.’
Sarah stared at her. ‘They raped me and I’m the one to be fired.’
‘We’re not firing you. You can come back to work.’
‘With them there? No thank you.’
‘I understand. Listen, Ted has a cousin who runs a business very like ours in Cornwall. He says he’ll find a place for you. As a favour to Ted. If you want to go there.’
Sarah said she’d think about it.
When she was well enough she went to stay at her parents’ house. She talked to them about Cornwall. Her mother didn’t want to lose her only daughter and Cornwall was a long way away but her father said, ‘Take it. Start a new life. The war will end. You’ve got fifty years ahead of you. You need to fill them.’
Sarah wasn’t fooled; he wanted her miserable, brooding presence out of his house. She couldn’t bear to go to her place of work because the two men were there so she wrote to the owner’s wife and said she’d like to give Cornwall a try.
She liked it. The people were stand-offish, they spoke with a curious accent she struggled at first to understand, it was weeks before anyone outside work even nodded to her and she was not invited into anyone’s home, and all of that was exactly as she wanted it. She rented a two bedroom cottage on the cliff and spent her summer evenings on a chair outside, watching the sea as it roared in and crashed against the rocks below or moved peacefully out to uncover a golden, sandy beach. She went to sleep calmed by its comforting sounds.
There was only one other house nearby and sometimes it stood empty but mostly it was occupied by a solitary man. When it was empty it was because an army jeep had arrived and taken the man away; while he was at home soldiers turned up two or three times a week on motor bikes carrying satchels. Britain was still a mainly white country at that time and Sarah had seen very few black men other than those in uniform; he was the only one in the little Cornish town.
Her employer asked her one day if she saw anything of her neighbour. She shook her head. ‘He seems to be something to do with the army.’
‘It’s hush-hush, whatever it is. Intelligence. He was at Cambridge before the war.’
‘That’s a long way away. I wonder what brought him here.’
‘Same thing as you. Grief. He was married, and she died. So he came home.’
He was looking at her curiously. ‘Home. He’s a Cornishman. We were at school together.’
‘Oh. But I thought…’
‘You thought he must be from Jamaica or somewhere?’
‘His mother came from there. Lovely woman. She worked as a nurse in London. Met one of ours, married him and moved down here. They’re both gone now.’
‘In the graveyard. His name’s Ted. I talk to him when he comes into town. He’s still my old schoolmate but his mind is always somewhere else. I asked him to come for supper but he wasn’t ready for that. You should introduce yourself. Invite him in for a cup of tea.’
‘I don’t think I’m ready, either.’
‘Well, think about it. He’s probably the most intelligent man you ever met, but he’s lonely.’
She didn’t think about it. She wasn’t going to invite a man into her home, even for a cup of tea, because who knew what else he might expect? And she knew what men could do when they wanted something you weren’t prepared to give. There’d be no more of that in her life. She’d had Bill and she’d lost him. She wasn’t going to lie on her back and let some other man set her thighs apart. She’d live like Aunt Marie, alone and celibate till the day she died.
Still, she watched the man with more interest after that conversation. He had a name now. Ted.
The war had been on since 1939, reverse after reverse and however the newspapers and the Government tried to dress it up it was clear that things were going badly. More than sixty thousand British soldiers died in France in 1940 and when the British Expeditionary Force was surrounded even Churchill had to say it was a colossal military disaster—though he claimed the evacuation from Dunkirk was a miracle of deliverance. Not for the men who died there, Sarah thought. Not for the wives, mothers and girlfriends they left behind. By 1944, though, it became clear that the positive words in the press had some substance behind them. D-Day happened and lots of men died but the Allies were there, now, in France, and slowly but surely they were moving forward.
Ted was collected by jeep less often, and fewer satchels were brought to his door. He spent time in his garden and one day, perhaps sensing that she watched him, he raised his head and nodded to her. She replied with a tight smile.
By 1945 news from the war was even better and by the end of April it was clear that six years of fighting were coming to an end. On the 8th of May peace was declared in Europe.
The closed, unwelcoming Cornish surprised Sarah that day. There was dancing, singing and kissing in the streets and then in those same streets trestle tables were set out and neighbours ate tea together. Flour and eggs were in short supply so there wasn’t much bread and there weren’t many cakes, but the elation made up for it. You could see mothers looking at sons approaching call-up age and knowing the shadow had lifted. You could also count the women who knew their husband, their son, their boyfriend or just the man they hankered for—their so far and now always to be unrequited love—was never coming back.
And, of course, war’s inevitable leavings: the women who had opened their hearts and their legs to soldiers who were gone. Gone didn’t have to mean dead; there were absent American, Polish, Czech and Canadian lovers as well as British and most of them had returned to mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters far away. And to wives, of course. These women nursed the babes who would never know their fathers and rehearsed the lies they would have to tell. Bastardy still carried a stigma—for mother and for child—but the worn wedding ring bought in a pawn shop and the tale of a husband dead on some French beach would bring sympathy and, if the Gods were smiling, a new start with a new man who, this time, the woman would get safely to the altar before allowing any hanky-panky.
Although that would be harder if the father had not been white.
Sarah was thinking about that as she climbed the cliff path towards home. Her boss’s wife had pressed her to join their party, but Sarah didn’t want to celebrate. The joy of others at the thought of the men who would soon be coming home reminded her too much of the one who wouldn’t.
Ted wasn’t in town celebrating, either. He was in his garden, setting out the plants he had raised in his greenhouse. Plants that would flower in this first summer of peace. He nodded as Sarah walked past and she smiled and walked on. He was a nice man, or so he seemed, but he was black in a white man’s county, a white man’s town. What kind of a childhood had he had? What feelings were hidden behind that smooth brown skin, those brown eyes that never seemed to give anything away?
Next day, the woman who owned the house Sarah lived in came to see her. ‘I’ve decided to sell up. I’ll give you first refusal.’
When Sarah went by train to check what condition Aunt Marie’s place was in, she was pleasantly surprised. Her mother had been in regularly to clean and her father had had the ceiling repaired (there was no hook in the new version) and kept the garden in check. The estate agent Sarah visited said the place would sell for more than twice what her landlady was asking for the cliff-top house in Cornwall and that he would expect offers to come quickly. Sarah visited her mother at a time when she knew her father would be at work, told her what she was doing and then took the train home. It amazed her that she now thought of Cornwall as home, but so it was.
Sarah had been brought up knowing the value of money and most of the surplus after buying the house on the clifftop went in the bank. She did, however, learn to drive and when she had her licence she bought a second hand Ford Pop. Scarcely any women had driven during her childhood but many had learned during the war and she was not the only one in Cornwall behind a steering wheel. She also bought a new bench to replace the one that was falling to bits outside her front door, and some clothes.
Women’s underwear in the Fifties. Panty girdles. Corselettes. It could resemble armour, if that was what the woman wanted. In Sarah’s case, it was. She liked being closed in, protected. She took comfort from the idea that a man would have to fight to get inside these steely garments. She knew she would fight back. There would be no more men hooking her nightie over the back of her head and then helping themselves to what she did not want to give.
In the same spirit of security she locked the door even when she was in the house, and she locked it when she sat outside on her bench. Of course it made no difference whether Ted was in his garden or not; she sat on the bench because she liked being outside. If she sat there more often when she could see Ted, that was coincidence.
Bill had not been a tall man and that had never troubled Sarah because she was not a big woman. Ted must be over six feet. That was too tall. She could never love so tall a man.
His shoulders, too, were broad, but his stomach was flat. That, and the strong legs, must be from all the digging he did. He had bought the field next to his house and he was turning it over, double digging. If she had ever given any thought to what he was doing, she might have wondered what sort of garden he had in mind. Was it for vegetables? It was warm on this sheltered, south-westerly coast, but what sort of flowers would thrive in the salt air? She didn’t wonder, though, because she didn’t think about what he was doing. Just as she didn’t think about him.
If she had studied him she might have seen the scar that ran from the end of one eyebrow to the lobe of his ear but of course she didn’t. How seemly could it be for a widow—a war widow, left behind by a man killed fighting for his country—to wonder how a man had come by a scar like that? Though she did acknowledge that it was an attractive scar. A manly scar.
And, of course, there was his brown skin. You loved what you were used to, and she was not used to skin that was not white.
If she’d let herself, she’d have said he had a kind face. She didn’t because it was not for her to have thoughts about a man’s face, kind or not, but backed into a corner she would probably have allowed that it was a nice face, as faces went. Nicer than those two men who had hooked her nightie over the back of her head and taken by force what should have been for Bill alone. Kinder than them, that was for sure. But she wouldn’t let herself.
Her boss stopped by her desk one day. ‘You ever talk to Ted?’
She stared at him, confused. Ted would nod to her now each time he saw her, and she would smile back, but they had never spoken. For some reason she didn’t feel happy about saying that. Her boss was a Cornishman and therefore in no position to criticise standoffishness and reluctance to acknowledge strangers, but even so. She and Ted have been neighbours now for six years and nods and smiles are still their only communication. She would never have behaved like that in the place where she’d grown up. No-one there would.
But maybe they should, given that the place where she’d grown up was the place where she’d been raped.
‘You don’t talk to him? You must, though. Even if you only say Hello. Don’t you?’
She shook her head. ‘Well. I smile at him.’
‘You smile at him. He’s lonely, Sarah. Aren’t you lonely, too?’
She ripped the letter she had just finished out of her typewriter and laid it in a folder. What was this man trying to do? ‘Lots of people are lonely. The war…’
‘The war is over. It’s been over for a while now. Time to move on.’
‘Who are you to tell me…’ but he wasn’t listening, had already moved on himself and she was left shaking, her hands on her desk, her face white. She knew people were watching her and she forced a blankness, a look of carefreeness, that was not real. She would not let people see how she felt.
But her boss was not finished and when she was packing up to go home he put an envelope in her hands. ‘I’d like Ted to have this tonight. Could you possibly drop it off for me?’
She wanted to refuse. She knew she could not.
What she had hoped was that Ted would be in his garden. He was not. She left the Ford’s engine running, a clear indication that she did not mean to stay, would not be coming in. Ted came to the door holding a heavy cloth. ‘Come in—I’m just taking something off the stove.’
She held out the envelope but he had gone, rushing back to his kitchen. She waved it in the air. A useless gesture. She could drop it on the floor just inside the door, but to do that would look awful. She went back to the car and turned off the engine.
The house was far cleaner than she would have imagined it could be with one man living alone. From the kitchen came a smell of lamb, tomatoes and spices. He didn’t eat English food, then.
He turned from the stove and smiled. That smile, open and friendly, was like a knife twisting in her gut after years in this place of closed faces, years of a young widow’s loneliness. She liked the way he looked at her—not as a man looking at a woman but as one person looking at another. She stepped forward and held out the envelope. He took it from her. ‘Thank you.’ That was it. The job was done. She should leave. Hurry back to her car and go. Get back to her own house and lock the door.
She stood where she was.
Ted opened the envelope and read the note inside. ‘That’s nice. An invitation to dinner on Saturday.’
‘Oh. Will you go?’
He grimaced. ‘I don’t suppose so.’
‘You were at school together, weren’t you?’
‘We were. He’s a good friend. But…they’re a couple. I’m not.’
‘You were, though?’
He nodded. ‘My wife was killed. In the bombing.’
Her employer had been right—Ted was lonely. Like her. ‘It was a shell that took my husband away.’
He looked at her. ‘I’m sorry. I did wonder.’ He shook himself, pointed to the pot he had taken from the stove. ‘I always make too much. Would you like to stay and eat with me?’
It was an outrageous suggestion. The only thing to do was to say “No, thank you” and leave. Staying to share a meal with another man, a man who was not her husband, was simply not possible. She didn’t know how he could have the nerve to invite her. She said, ‘I’d like to go home and change first.’
He smiled. ‘The stew will wait ten minutes.’
In her bedroom she shed her clothes, peeling off the armour of the tight girdle and running her hands over the creases it had made in her soft flesh. She hurried into the bathroom, soaked a flannel in warm water and washed her personal places front and back. In the bedroom once more she pulled on a pair of soft cotton knickers. No suspender belt. No stockings. It was years since she had felt this unprotected. This free. She picked up the picture of Bill in his uniform and kissed it. Then she put it down.
Crossing the road from her garden to his she realised that she had left her door unlocked.
Ted had opened a bottle of red wine and when she came in he handed her a glass. ‘I’ve had six bottles of this in the house for years. This is the first one I’ve opened since Amy died.
She had drunk wine only once in her life, and that was on her wedding day. A single glass of something that pretended to be champagne and wasn’t very nice. This tasted in a different league.
The table was set for two and she wondered if it had been his wife who had chosen such nice plates. To go with the stew he had mashed potatoes and cooked Savoy cabbage. She had never eaten spicy food and she thought it was lovely. ‘How do you get the potato to taste like this?’
‘I put an onion in the pan while they’re boiling. The taste gets into the mash.’
‘You put it in whole?’
‘In two halves. Peeled, of course.’
During the meal he told her about Amy and she told him about Bill. They lingered over the wine and then he put cheese, Jacob’s Cream Crackers and butter on the table. ‘I’m sorry I don’t have a pudding. I wasn’t anticipating a guest.’
‘This is lovely. And puddings put weight on you. I don’t want to get fat.’
It was an opportunity for him to tell her she had a lovely body. He didn’t take it. There hadn’t been anything untoward in his manner. She knew she was free to say “Thank you” and go; the meal was a gift without strings. When he smiled that lovely smile he wasn’t trying to seduce her. Which made it all the more seductive.
‘Would you like coffee?’
That was not something she would ever have considered; all her life she had drunk tea after a meal. Everyone she knew did the same. There was a tingling she hadn’t felt since those nights with Bill. She wouldn’t say even to herself which parts of her were tingling. She stood up and moved round the table to where he sat. ‘Could we leave that till later?’ She put one hand on each side of his face and turned it up so that she could kiss him. Later she would remember this moment in horror, wondering what she would have done if he had reacted with distaste—if he had rejected her. He did not. His tongue came into her mouth. He put his own hands on her hips and rose slowly from his chair. The kissing did not stop as he came upright.
She had taken the lead with Bill on their wedding night and now she took the lead again. Maybe she was a lead-taking kind of woman. She knew where his bedroom was because she had seen, those times when she had watched him, which light came on and went off last at night. Taking him by the hand she led the way upstairs and through what she knew must be the right door. Then she turned and folded herself into his arms. She wasn’t completely shameless; he must take the lead now.
After he had undressed her he laid her on the bed and she watched as he took off his own clothes. Then he came to her. She wrapped her arms round his broad back as he kissed her, his tongue once again entering her mouth. He felt so warm and strong; he smelt so good. She lay back as he began to move down, kissing her all the way until at last his tongue entered her once more in a completely different place and she was so glad she had taken those extra moments with the soap and the flannel. Then he was over her again and his tongue’s place was taken by something altogether harder. He kissed and kissed her as he brought her to the precipice and took her over it; she heard her screams of fulfilment as if from someone far away and she wrapped her legs round him as he drove on towards his own climax.
When it was over he lay facing her and she snuggled into him. Was it disloyal to Bill to allow herself to know that, however good love-making had been with him, it had never been quite as wonderful as what she had just experienced? Perhaps it was. But Bill was dead. Ever since his death, when she heard people say, “Life goes on” she had shaken her head and closed her ears. But it did. It went on. The dead could bury their dead. For the living, love was still possible. She had lived without love for so long and she could live without it no longer.
But what was she doing, thinking of love? She had given herself to this man who lay beside her. An act of love? For her, certainly. But for him?
She sat up. ‘I’m sorry.’
He was, clearly, appalled. ‘Sorry? You’re sorry? Did what we just did mean nothing to you?’
Now she was confused. ‘I didn’t mean…what must you think of me?’
He took her in his arms once more. ‘Well, Sarah, I will tell you what I think. I think you are a lovely, caring woman who shared with me one of the most beautiful times of my life.’
‘What on earth did you think I thought?’
She hunched her shoulders. ‘That I’m a slut.’
He put his hands on her shoulders. ‘Sarah. If you were a slut we would have done this a long time ago. I’ve watched you and I’ve wanted you…’
‘You wanted me?’
‘…and I believe you have wanted me, too.’
‘I have.’ She said it very quietly. ‘I wouldn’t let myself know how much I wanted you.’
‘And yet you call yourself a slut.’ He stood up and hauled on a pair of pyjama bottoms, then handed her his dressing gown. ‘Put that on to come downstairs while I make that coffee. And let’s hear no more about sluts.’
The dressing gown was too big for her. It smelt of him. She wrapped it tight around her; she snuggled into it. They sat side by side on a sofa in the sitting room and drank their coffee. He put his arm around her. He said, ‘I hope you’re not going to say you don’t want to see me again.’
‘That invitation to dinner. I’d like to accept it. But only if you’ll go with me.’
She would love to go with him. ‘As a couple?’
‘As a couple. If you can bear the idea, as a couple who mean to be man and wife.’
She looked into his serious brown eyes. ‘Oh, Ted. Oh, my darling.’ Her eyes left his and went back to staring into her lap. ‘Can I…can I stay the night?’
‘My darling, I hope you’ll stay with me every night for the rest of time.’ He put his arms round her, hugged her close, kissed her. She kissed him back, ferociously.
Next morning, she told her employer that Ted would be his guest for dinner. ‘He’d like to bring a partner.’
‘Anyone I know?’
He looked at her. ‘Well. All I can say is, it’s about bloody time.’
Note from the Author
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